This year I tried a new writing practice in my 8th grade English class, and it led me to an important realization about writing development.
Like many great classroom moments, this one happened by accident: I rediscovered a canvas bag of my old writing journals that I’d stuffed in a classroom closet when I moved a year ago.
Just before I found it again, I’d been introducing a new writing structure—the “daybook"—to my students. I learned about it in Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across the Content Areas by Mary Tedrow. She suggests that students have a physical notebook to write in daily for themselves, often guided by their experiences and interests.
In my implementation of the daybook, it is separate from taking regular class notes. Daybook writing can be personal, is graded only for completion, and read only with an invitation. Tedrow shares many ways to build on the daybook idea, such as having students categorize and index their entries, and develop some into longer pieces.
Tedrow, whose methods come from years of teaching, suggests building anticipation for the moment students first write in their daybooks.
On a recent fall day, each student brought in a notebook of their choosing; some were composition-style and some were fancier journals. I asked students to open their binders and describe their daybooks—how they chose them, how they felt about them, and their favorite writing utensils. Then they took turns reading aloud from their responses.
The next day, students wrote in their binders about what writing is useful for, when they enjoy writing, and when it feels difficult or unpleasant. Students were eager to discuss these ideas; I could feel the anticipation building toward finally writing in the daybooks.
Somewhere in the mix of this conversation and the visual variety of my students’ journals, it dawned on me that I had a story of my own that connected to this work, and I needed to tell it to my students.
Discovering the Power Of Writing
It happened when I was in study hall as a 6th grader in the early 90s. We were supposed to be silently doing homework, but on this day, there wasn’t much assigned. We tried chatting, but our teacher, Mr. G, insisted on quiet. Some of us started writing notes to friends.
Suddenly, Mr. G got up and began walking up and down the rows. He stopped at Layla’s desk. “That’s not homework,” he said. “Yes it is,” she claimed, red-faced. “Give it to me,” Mr. G ordered. She didn’t. He grabbed the paper and walked back to his desk.
Then he began reading the note aloud.
“Dear Shawn,” it began. We all knew Layla was “dating” Shawn. A lot of 6th graders were dabbling in romantic relationships. There was a rumor around school that Layla and Shawn had kissed at the high school football game last Friday. I would never have remembered this were it not for Mr. G., who went on reading the note aloud, mentioning the Friday game and then stopping abruptly.
Mr. G’s angry face suddenly looked ashamed, too. He balled up the note and tossed it in the trash. “This is study hall,” he said harshly. “No more notes.”
For me, this was a turning point. I was mad in an unfamiliar way. I didn’t know where to turn. I wanted to vent to my best friend a few rows away, but I didn’t dare. So I took out some paper and started writing my anger to no one in particular.
I cursed. I broke my lines up like poetry for emphasis. It was exhilarating. I liked writing my feelings so much, I wrote for the rest of the period. I filled several pages, letting out whatever was on my mind.
That night, I wrote some more. Over the next few weeks, I filled a small stack of paper and then transitioned to a journal. It was like making a new friend.
As I recounted this story to my students, they responded with shock and knowing nods. They know the frustration of injustice, and also the triumph of self-expression.
From that day on, I explained, I wrote almost daily. Writing was a place I could always go and be unapologetically myself.
Journaling as Foundational
Then I had an idea: “Hey,” I said to my students. “Do you want to see my old journals?” Of course they did.
I went to the closet and pulled out the canvas bag. Students ooohed and ahhhed at the sight of so many different journals, and the hundreds of pages in my handwriting. I randomly opened a few and read out the dates—1993, 1996, 2000. “You filled all of those?!” someone asked. “Over years, yes,” I said.
“Didn’t you write a book, too?” one student asked. I went to my shelf and got my published book.
This led to another realization. “You know what?” I said, thinking aloud. “I was able to write this book, because I had so much practice writing for fun.”
It seems obvious now, but I somehow never noticed that my extensive practice writing for myself laid a foundation for my academic and professional writing later. The inspiration and structures in Tedrow’s book were the springboard I needed to begin to make that connection for my students.
Finally, it was time. “This year,” I told my students, “you’re going to write. Five days a week. In your own daybook. Whatever you want.” To my great surprise, students clapped and cheered! They saw the power in it, and they were ready.
Now that we’ve been working with the daybooks for a few months, I can see that they’ve provided many students with a place to voice their thoughts, away from an audience, especially social media. I’ve assigned students at least half a page most days. Some write more. One student is writing a novel.
Since I grade the daybooks only for completion, students get to choose what they want me to do with their writing when they turn them in. They put directions for me on a sticky note: “Read and comment,” “Just count,” “Read this entry only,” or “Please correct mechanics on this entry.” Students choose their level of privacy and attention.
I’m still experimenting, but I’ve felt my students’ excitement, and I’ve learned so much about their lives and their ideas from the writing they’ve shared. Students seem more comfortable writing in general. In fact, the most frequent comment I hear is that daybook writing is relaxing. With all the pressure on adolescents today from all directions, that’s a major win already.